HOPE-ing for higher wages

The Houston Organization of Public Employees, a/k/a HOPE, has been making its case for better wages for the city’s public employees.

The event was the latest public-relations move taken by the union, which also has sent dozens of members to City Council in recent weeks to complain about low wages and benefit costs. Several members also are featured in a Web site, www.houstonwehaveaproblem.com, that derides their “second-class pay.” And more events are planned for this week, including a downtown rally Thursday night and a blog by Councilman Peter Brown, who will live on $92.12 for four days, the same budget as a city health department clerk.

I’ve got a press release beneath the fold with more information about this. Yeah, this kind of stunt is cheesy, but the point is to call attention to a situation, and it has already succeeded on that score.

The discussion led White to send an e-mail recently to all 13,000 civilian employees. He asked them to use “good judgment” in weighing claims by the union, which is a marriage of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union.

“This Administration is listening to your concerns,” White’s e-mail read. “Again, I thank both the employee representatives and the management representatives who have worked hard during this negotiation. We are attempting to bring this negotiation to a conclusion soon.”

At issue are the ongoing meet-and-confer contract negotiations — the first ever between civilian municipal workers in Texas. The talks began in May, and it is possible a deal could be reached within weeks.

The city has offered a four-year, 16-percent increase in the size of its civilian payroll budget, but so far only has guaranteed 2-percent across-the-board raises each year. White prefers to set aside some money and let supervisors give larger raises to the best employees.

“One of the issues from the very beginning was that the mayor wanted to make certain that part of the compensation made available in the budget would be performance-based,” said Anthony Hall, the city’s chief administrative officer.

Hall and other city officials say there’s only so much they can offer, without threatening to force layoffs or privatization of services on future mayors and councils who might face leaner budget circumstances.

The average municipal employee in Houston is paid about $37,000 annually, according to the city, a figure that increases to $59,000 with benefits such as vacation time, pension contributions and health insurance.

But the union last week focused on the lowest-paid workers, the laborers, data entry clerks and other entry-level positions that are paid less then $10 per hour. The union also praised the police department’s recent effort to pay all civilian employees a $20,000 annual salary.

I don’t necessarily have an issue with performance based raises, as long as the criteria for getting them is well understood. But I think starting the pay scale somewhere north of $20K per year is a reasonable thing to ask. We can argue about what a “living wage” means, but I hope we all agree that under $10 and hour ain’t it.

HOUSTON — City Council Member Peter Brown shared a homemade lunch Monday at noon with a Houston city employee as he began a four-day challenge to live on her wage. From Monday, October 29 to Thursday, November 1, Brown will be living on the budget of Belinda Rodriguez, an intake receptionist at Houston’s Nueva Casa de Amigos Health Center.

Rodriguez, a single mother with three children, spends $23.03 a day on the essentials–food, gas and clothing–for her family. From Monday through Thursday, Brown will be living on $92.12 in cash, Rodriguez’s base budget for four days.

Brown and Rodriguez will be holding a series of events during the week to highlight the challenges facing many Houston city employees, whose median pay is 21 percent below municipal workers in other Texas and U.S. cities, according to a City of Houston study. Though Rodriguez works full-time for Houston’s health department, she can’t afford the city’s health plan for her three children, who receive their health care through Medicaid.

Brown will be blogging about his week at HoustonWeHaveAProblem.com, a website of the Houston Organization of Public Employees (HOPE), which is seeking a contract with the city that can provide a living wage for every Houston worker.


DAY 1 – Brown’s Bag Lunch – Brown and Rodriguez bring bag lunches to Nueva Casa de Amigos and discuss the challenges in store for the week.

Monday, October 29, Noon, Nueva Casa de Amigos Health Center, 1809 N. Main, Houston

DAY 2 – Food Fight – Struggling to buy groceries on a limited budget.

Tuesday, Oct. 30, 11:00 a.m., Kroger’s, 1938 W. Gray, Houston

DAY 3 – Fright Night – Will there be money left for last-minute Halloween shopping?

Wednesday, Oct. 31, 4:30 p.m., CVS Pharmacy, 4702 Irvington Blvd., Houston

DAY 4 – The Week on My Wage – Brown and Rodriguez report back to the HOPE Rally for Quality Public Services at City Hall.

Thursday, Nov. 1, 6:00 p.m., City Hall, 901 Bagby, Houston

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